Professor XAlexander Shulgin made millions for Dow Chemical. Then he synthesized MDMA, realized his best test subject was himself, and became the godfather of Generation Ecstasy.
Now he’s back inside his private lab, running a new batch
of psychedelic compounds through his chromatograph.
By Ethan Brown
JUST AFTER sunset on a cool California evening last fall, Alexander Shulgin prepared to test the effects of the cactus Pachycereus pringlei on himself, his wife, and 10 other subjects. The group, which included two chemists and an anthropologist, gathered in the living room of a redwood house deep in the woods to help Shulgin with his research into psychedelic cacti. A few months earlier, the anthropologist had told Shulgin that this particular variety was worth looking into - a cave painting in Mexico suggested it might have psychoactive properties. Through chromatography, Shulgin determined that P. pringlei probably was a mild psychedelic, but "the establishment of its human pharmacology requires that it be consumed by man." So Shulgin dissolved the extract of the cactus into fruit juice, then poured a 4-ounce cup for each person. But his experiment went awry. "At about the two-hour point, my visual experiences became totally swamped by an overwhelming fear of moving," recalls Shulgin, the 77-year-old chemist who introduced ecstasy to the world. His wife, Ann, had an even more severe reaction. Out on the deck, she remembers, "I could see the full moon shining down on me with what felt like chilling contempt, and I thought, What an awful, stupid way to die." With her pulse racing, she went inside to check on her husband, who was upstairs in one of the bedrooms, lying still in the dark. "He said he was OK as long as he didn't move." Early the next morning, Shulgin assembled his test group, still in pajamas, to assess the effects of the cactus extract. All 12 of them had taken the same compound, but half had become violently ill, while the other six had the kind of pleasant but unremarkable experience Shulgin expected. The results, he decided, were inconclusive. Such unorthodox experiments are common for Shulgin, who might be described as practicing hard science with a blurry edge. With his gray beard, shock of white hair, and wrinkled tribal-patterned shirts, he certainly looks the part of a counterculture icon. But unlike Timothy Leary or Terence McKenna, Shulgin doesn't proselytize for psychedelic drugs. Instead, he invents new compounds, runs experiments to determine their pharmacological effects, and publishes his recipes. His 1976 synthesis of MDMA (3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine), aka ecstasy, is the best-known result of his work. But he's also created dozens of other psychoactive compounds, including DOM (2,5-dimethoxy-4-methylamphetamine), more commonly known as the potent '60s psychedelic STP, and 2C-T-7 (2,5-dimethoxy-4-(n)-propylthiophenethylamine), now sold on the street as "tripstasy"and suspected in the overdose death of a Tennessee teenager last year. Together with Ann, Shulgin has written two books that have become cult classics: PIHKAL: A Chemical Love Story (short for "Phenethylamines I Have Known And Loved") and TIHKAL: The Continuation (about tryptamines). They have long tested his compounds on themselves, in the tradition of scientists a century ago, then written about them in a style that mixes dispassionate technical detail ("A suspension of 9.5 g LAH in 750 ml well stirred and hydrous Et20 was held at reflux under an inert atmosphere") with wide-eyed psychedelic utopianism ("I saw the cloud toward the west. THE CLOUDS!!! No visual experience has ever been like this."). His approach inspired the so-called psychonauts, a small group of scientifically sophisticated young explorers who post chemical syntheses, experimental results, and "Train Wrecks and Trip Disasters" at Erowid.org. "Shulgin has given the scientific approach a role model," says one psychonaut who, under the pseudonym Murple, self-publishes studies on next-generation psychedelics like 2C-T-7.
Shulgin's experiment with P. pringlei is part of his most ambitious project yet - to classify the psychoactive compounds that occur naturally in cacti. Hundreds of plants have such properties, but many have never been tested, and Shulgin's search to identify the effects of each have drawn him to botany guides, anthropology books, and ancient religious texts. He plans to publish his results in 2004, and the anticipation is such that online sites catering to the psychonaut scene have begun to sell the plants he's working with.
"I really appreciated what morphine did. It depersonalized the pain."
To these psychedelic adventurers, Shulgin is a postmodern Prometheus bearing the gift of chemical enlightenment. Even some scientists who speak out against drugs see value in his work: "There are merits to what Shulgin is doing, as the government does not allow real, unbiased studies with psychedelic drugs," says Jonathan Porteus, a psychologist at Cal State Sacramento who works with clients experiencing memory and mood problems as a result of ecstasy use. But to antidrug crusaders, Shulgin is a Frankenstein who has loosed frightening pharmacological monsters on the youth of the world. When Shulgin was invited to speak at a conference on drug policy in England, the head of an antidrug group said it was like "going to an asylum and asking the inmates about mental health."
THE SHULGINS live in the hills of Lafayette, California, on a 20-acre ranch at the end of a winding dirt driveway that's been called Shulgin Road since the chemist's parents purchased the land in the '30s. It's a sunny summer day, and Ann sets out a plate of hummus and fruit on the patio. Then she thrusts out a story about Shulgin from Britain's Daily Mail headlined "HAS THIS MAN KILLED 100 BRITISH TEENAGERS?" "We're not sure if we want this interview to happen," she says coolly, gesturing at the article like it's a piece of evidence. "What kind of knowledge of psychedelics do you have?" She means personal experience. Finally, she allows, I can start asking questions, "but I'll put up a red a flag if you're inappropriate."
In the Shulgins' kitchen, a homey room decorated with a lifetime's worth of counterculture souvenirs - art by a peyote-worshiping tribe, a photo of Shulgin with New Age nutrition guru Andrew Weil - I ask the obvious question: How does he feel now that ecstasy has become an international phenomenon - and, to some, an international scourge? "It's pretty heavy-duty," Shulgin says solemnly. "I don't think it's being used the way it should." He disapproves of the potentially dangerous doses clubbers often take, and he worries that recreational use of his drugs will overshadow their higher purpose. Psychedelics are a means for adults to gain insight into themselves, Shulgin says. "The best words I can use are research tools."
Speak for yourself, Sasha," Ann interjects, using her husband's nickname. "I like to turn on and observe the universe. Scientists try to explain that these drugs aren't for fun as if there's something wrong with fun." The divide between the Shulgins reflects the schism between those who see psychedelics as a way to expand the senses and those who see them as a method to unlock the mind. While ravers gobble pills with abandon, psychonauts carefully measure out their desired dose.
Shulgin says ecstasy is particularly good for breaking down personal barriers, which is why some therapists used it before it was made illegal. "You don't have that sense of psychic territory to keep a psychiatrist out of," he says.
To Shulgin, a self-proclaimed libertarian, publishing synthesis instructions is "totally responsible": "If you're going to make a drug and use a drug, you want accurate information." A regular reader of the Federal Register, Shulgin even has a legal argument. "If you look at the Constitution, the 10th Amendment says anything that isn't handled in the Constitution or mentioned in the previous nine amendments should be reverted to the people or the states." In any case, he says, the government has no business making laws about personal behavior.
What about driving under the influence, Ann asks. Bad driving itself should be illegal, Shulgin replies - whatever its cause.
In the study that adjoins the kitchen, Ann's 36-year-old daughter, Wendy, is helping Shulgin research adrenochrome, an oxidized version of adrenaline briefly in vogue in the early '70s thanks to a mention in Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Medical studies have linked an excess of adrenochrome to brain dysfunction, and Shulgin believes the chemical could help scientists understand schizophrenia. "I've found a book on Amazon, but it's $75," Wendy shouts. "I need your credit card." Shulgin rises from his chair. "Take two," he says to her, pulling out his wallet, "$50 on one and $25 on the other."
The Shulgins can come across like a psychedelic version of the Osbournes - an ambling, eccentric paterfamilias, a kid who's caught up in the family business, and a savvier, more aggressive wife who protects them from the outside world. "Sasha made a decision a long time ago that he would never sell any drug," Ann says forcefully. Indeed, Shulgin has never played a role in getting any of the chemicals he's created onto the street. "As far as I know," he says at Ann's prompting, "I'm not doing anything illegal."
In fact, Shulgin has some establishment leanings. He belongs to the elite, all-male Bohemian Club (Dick Cheney and George Shultz are members), and in 1988 he published Controlled Substances: A Chemical and Legal Guide to the Federal Drug Laws. In one of the more ironic moments of the war on drugs, he and Ann were married on their ranch on July 4, 1981, by the administrator of a DEA lab he was friendly with. Exactly one year later, the man held his wedding in the same spot. Shulgin never had a problem with the law until 1994, when the drug agency raided the lab behind his house. He wasn't charged with anything, but he surrendered the DEA-approved analytical license that allowed him to study certain scheduled drugs. (A spokesperson for the agency's San Francisco office would not comment on the raid.) "The issue is closed, and I have the freedom of doing whatever lab work I choose," Shulgin says. Nevertheless, "the separation between me and my friends at the DEA is now quite severe."
BORN IN BERKELEY to two public-school teachers, Shulgin was raised in an intellectual atmosphere, and he was just 7 when he first wandered into the local chemical supply store. "It was a 15-minute bicycle ride from my house," he remembers, "and I'd go there and say, 'I'd like to get some sodium bicarbonate or some magnesium sulfate.' They'd take a glassine bag and put some chemicals in it and there was no charge. Today there would be regulations against that."
An apt student who mastered two foreign languages (Russian and French) and three instruments (violin, viola, and piano), Shulgin entered Harvard on a full scholarship in 1942. "It was a total, total disaster," he recalls. "The people around me were sons and daughters of important people, with money and property, position and stature. I was not, and there was no social blending at all." In the middle of his sophomore year, he dropped out to join the Navy.
Shulgin was stationed on a destroyer escort in the North Atlantic during World War II, and he remembers being shocked by all the death he saw around him. He was never hurt badly, but the treatment he received for a painful infection introduced him to a lifelong fascination. "I really appreciated what morphine did," he recalls. "It doesn't quiet the pain - it makes you indifferent to it. It depersonalizes the pain."
Shulgin got an honorable discharge in 1946 and enrolled at UC Berkeley to study chemistry. He received his PhD in biochemistry in 1954, and the spirit of intellectual openness was an important influence. He wrote a letter to the head of the chemistry department at the University of Pennsylvania suggesting a more efficient way to synthesize morphine. "I got an answer," he remembers. "He said, 'Neat idea - it's never been tried.' Even if he didn't say much, he acknowledged the letter. To me, that was a great treasure."
Ever since, Shulgin has endeavored to answer all his mail, and he runs an Internet forum called "Ask Dr. Shulgin," in which he fields questions on such esoteric topics as the interaction of peyote with antidepressants. Murple recalls sending Shulgin an entire unsolicited manuscript of a book he was working on and receiving a detailed response.
After graduating from Berkeley, Shulgin took a job with a clinical diagnostics company, but he quickly jumped to Dow Chemical, where he invented Zectran, the first biodegradable insecticide. Still fascinated by mind-altering substances, he tried mescaline in 1960 and was moved to begin researching psychoactive drugs. "It was given to me by a psychiatrist friend, and it was the turning point that dictated the direction of my research for the rest of my life," he says. "I was confronted with the reality that the drug wasn't doing anything - it was just the catalyst. How much else was in there that I had no access to?"
Shulgin spent the next few years tinkering with the molecular structure of mescaline, inventing DOM and a few other compounds that, through the actions of others, ended up in the Haight-Ashbury and, soon after, in the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. Dow wasn't happy with this research, but since Zectran had proven profitable, he was granted time to work on his pet projects - from home. "Dow said, 'Do as you wish,'" Shulgin recalls. "I did as I wished. I did psychedelics."
ECSTASY was first synthesized in 1912 by the pharmaceutical company Merck, which used it as a chemical intermediary. It wasn't administered as a psychoactive substance until 1953, when the US government tested it on animals as a possible chemical warfare agent. Shulgin created a new synthesis for MDMA on September 12, 1976, according to his journal, and he told Wired he was tipped off to its possible effects by an undergrad in a medicinal chemistry group he advised at San Francisco State University. At the time, MDA (3,4-methylenedioxyamphetamine), dubbed "Mellow Drug of America," was popular on the psychedelic scene, and the student mentioned having heard something about its methylated version.
Shulgin first tried 16 milligrams of MDMA to no noticeable effect (the average dose in a pill is 75 to 150 milligrams), then upped the amount incrementally every week. At 81 milligrams, he had his eureka moment. "First awareness at 35 minutes smooth, and it was very nice," Shulgin wrote in his journal. "Forty-five minutes still developing, but I can easily assimilate it as it comes under excellent control. Fifty minutes getting quite deep, but I am keeping a pace."
"MDMA didn't have the tremendous effect on him that it did on other people," Ann says. For her, the compound is "an extraordinary opener. There's no other drug that gives you such consistent insight." Ann began administering MDMA to people as a sort of lay-therapist. Shulgin introduced the drug to Leo Zeff, an Oakland psychologist who guided dozens of his patients through sessions on various drugs. (Zeff himself viewed psychedelics as a path to enlightenment and wrote about dancing with a Torah while tripping on LSD.) Zeff was so enthusiastic about the compound that he postponed his retirement to travel across the country introducing MDMA to hundreds of his fellow therapists. Along the way, he gave the drug its first street name, Adam, because he believed it stripped away neuroses and put users in a primordial state.
Thanks to Zeff's advocacy, MDMA was widely known as an experimental therapy by the mid-'80s; Phil Donahue devoted an entire show to its medical potential in February 1985. But in Dallas, a very different use of the compound was emerging. Renamed "ecstasy" by a former drug dealer who sensed its commercial potential, MDMA was sold at nightclubs like the Starck right alongside Jack Daniel's and Bud. Months after Donahue's program aired, the DEA estimated that Dallas residents were consuming nearly 30,000 hits of ecstasy per month. Though it's sometimes difficult to pinpoint the specific cause of an overdose death in someone who has ingested multiple substances, the Dallas County Medical Examiner's Office estimated that in the early and mid-'80s, misuse of the drug had killed five people.
Among those in the psychiatric community who believed in the potential of ecstasy, some argued that therapists should administer it quietly. Others, including Shulgin, urged them to publish their results. In April 1985, MDMA was classified as an emergency Schedule 1, a drug with "high potential for abuse" and "no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States." (Permanent Schedule 1 status followed a year later.) Not a single therapist had published on the drug's therapeutic benefits - mostly, Shulgin says, out of fear they'd be seen as endorsing what was called the "yuppie psychedelic."
Even with his creation outlawed, Shulgin continued to make a case for its use. At a 1992 National Institute on Drug Abuse technical review on hallucinogens, Shulgin admitted testing psychoactive compounds on himself. "Sasha found a way, with DEA people in attendance, to present the results of human studies on psychedelics," says Rick Doblin, founder and president of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. "It was one of the more heroic, in-the-lion's den moments I've ever seen." Two years later, the national body issued a report stating, among other things, "there is an urgent need for human testing." This fall, Doblin will begin testing MDMA as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, the first FDA-approved psychotherapy research into the drug since it was criminalized.
AFTER A LUNCH of homemade pepperoni pizza, Shulgin leads me down to his lab on a hay-strewn path flanked by Salvia divinorum, an herb used by shamanic healers in Oaxaca, Mexico. On the door, a heavy, printed sign reads THIS IS A KNOWN AND APPROVED RESEARCH FACILITY; a smaller placard displays the international symbol for radioactive material, and a third lists a local contact number for the DEA. A harsh chemical odor wafts out when he opens the door. On one wall, there's a torn, browning copy of the periodic table; against another, shelves hold beakers containing bits of dissected cacti.
HE POINTS TO THE GRAPH: "BINGO! WE’VE GOT ACTIVITY."
"How does one know if a certain cactus is active?" Shulgin asks. There's often anthropological evidence that a plant is psychoactive, but many species have several names, while even experts have a hard time distinguishing between various types of cacti. Several that contain psychoactive material, including Trichocereus pachanoi, more commonly known as San Pedro, are sold at garden centers.
When questions of taxonomy arise, Shulgin isolates and identifies specific compounds through chromatography. "Here I'm totally caught up in the Western tools of science," he says, as classical music blares from a transistor radio hanging from a ceiling beam. "Get a bit of plant into the test tube, shove the wet residue into the chromatographic monster, and you discover 20 new things in the plant." He shows me a small notebook with pages displaying the peaks and valleys of printed-out chromatography. "Bingo!" he says, pointing to an upward shift. "We've got activity."
That's where the standard scientific method ends. Shulgin will sample an extremely low dose with Ann, then bring the substance to the group with whom he tried P. pringlei. Sometimes his psychedelic adventures scare him, Shulgin says, "but how else are you going to learn?" In case the worst does happen, "I always keep an anti-convulsant on hand."
These days, though, the group doesn't meet as much anymore. "We're getting too old," he says.
SHULGIN RARELY travels, but he's come to MIT for an American Chemical Society symposium on "The Chemistry and Pharmacology of Hallucinogens." During a wine and cheese reception before dinner, he's mobbed by chemistry students, who thrust out dog-eared copies of PIHKAL for him to sign. One tells Shulgin that he took a bus all the way from Indiana just to meet him. A Goth couple persuades him to pose with them for a few Polaroids.
In a crisp white shirt and blue-striped tie, Shulgin looks like an overwhelmed teenager forced to dress for some family function. During the presentations, several lecturers mention his work, and a researcher from the National Institute on Drug Abuse refers to a few psychedelics as "Shulgin analogs."
"Where are my dirty pictures?" Shulgin asks Ann in a panic. He means the transparencies he's made of the chemical structures of his compounds. Moments later he finds them in the knapsack he left by the bar and enlists me to keep track of his materials.
Shulgin is more at ease when the conference breaks for dinner, riffing on palindromes (his favorite is Soros), his views on drug laws (to prove a point, he pulls out a wallet-sized copy of the Constitution), and the asparagus ("Everyone check their urine later and let me know if it smells").
After dinner, as the sun sets over the Charles River, Shulgin steps behind the podium and explains some of his syntheses at such dizzying speeds that he has to stop a few times to catch his breath. As his creations are projected behind him, he talks about the hand-drawn diagrams of MDMA, MMDA, and 2C-T-7 the way anyone else might talk about photos of their vacation or wedding.
"It's the excitement of discovering something totally unknown," he tells me later.
"I feel an incredible tingle when I look at a white solid I've just synthesized that I know has never existed anywhere in the universe before this moment." He stops himself. "Oh, maybe someone on a planet around some sun way out there may have looked at it, but this is its first existence on Earth. And I'll be the first to know what it does."
San Pedro Cactus
Ecstasy in the USA
Charles Grob on MDMA
The Language of Ecstasy
Alexander and Ann Shulgin
Alexander Shulgin on MDMA
Alexander Shulgin and 2C-T-7
Buying Research Chemicals Online
Alexander Shulgin: Psychedelic Chemist
Alexander Shulgin on Future Psychedelics